My two bits on the challenge of chosing a major and a career.
One of the many things I like about being a university instructor is the many students who come to me to discuss really big parts of their lives. “How can I get a good internship?” “Is this major right for me?” “How can I continue past this catastrophe?” “Why won’t my research work out right?” I genuinely enjoy discussing these kinds of things with people.
Earlier this semester I had a fascinating conversation with a new student who never really posed a clear question but kept dancing around the request “I want a career where I can be happy and fulfilled and make the world a better place by being in it.” I think some of my advise to this student will probably interest a larger audience, hence this blog post.
Rule 1 to a happy and productive career: do honest work.
To determine if your work is honest or not, ask yourself “if the people whose money is paying my wages understood what I am really doing, would they want to keep paying me?” That question identifies the majority of dishonest work I have encountered; the other question I sometimes use is “do the providers of the resources I use feel fairly compensated for what I take from them?”
If you can answer both of these questions positively then you are a net benefit to society. You buy goods for more than they are worth to their provider, increasing their sense of wealth; and you sell goods for less than they are worth to your clients, increasing their sense of wealth. Your work generates wealth.
There are of course grey areas. For example, I know good people who work in the military and good people who refuse to accept military funding for research. I am not advocating for one view over another; I am instead saying you should be certain your work is honest.
In Scotland there is a building (designed by John Allan in the 1890s) on which is engraved the motto “What-e’er thou art, Act well thy part.” I have no idea where that motto first came from, if it is original to John Allan or encountered by him from some other source. But whatever its origin, it is good advice.
Pick a job—say, for example, being an automobile mechanic. What kind of automobile mechanic will you be? Will you be content with what you know, or will you strive to become as competent as you can be? Will you grumble at the stupidity of your clients or will you take the time to explain to them what you are really doing and why? Will you treat the job as a waypoint on the path to your real work or will you “act on the land as for years”, as the Lord put it?
Now for the interesting part of this thought experiment. Which set of answers to the above questions will most likely
Make you a mechanic that others will trust?
Fix the most cars the best?
Make you happy if you love working with engines?
Make you happy if you find working with engines tedious and dull?
Help your co-workers like you?
Help your children respect you?
Help your spouse find it easy to love you?
Help you respect and love yourself?
When I go through this exercise with almost any job I pick, be it student or stay-at-home parent or bank teller or whatever, I end up answering all of the “most likely” questions the same. I am guessing you will as well.
Now, what is it you are doing now? Not what are you planning on doing next year: what is your role in life today? What are the “what kind of ____ will you be” questions for your role?
I enjoy just about every aspect of my job. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy planning lessons, I enjoy structuring curriculum and answering questions and advising students and the office politics of the cooperative hierarchical anarchy that is academia… but part of the reason I love it is because I make a conscious effort to do my role well, to be the kind of instructor and advisor and colleague that people wish they had.
It is nice to to a good thing, and worth asking what job you’ll find nicest. But whatever you are, be it well.
I occasionally have people ask me, “what is the biggest downside to being a software engineer?” After explaining that I don’t know first hand—I am an educator producing software engineers, not a software engineer myself—I usually respond “the only complaints I have heard from more than a single person about this career are ‘my boss is annoying’ and ‘my co-workers are annoying’.” Which, incidentally, is true. I expect at some point I’ll talk to enough disgruntled software engineers that another complaint appears twice, but so far I haven’t. “Of course,” I usually add, “I hear those complaints about every job where you even have a boss and co-workers.”
Over-simplifying a bit, if you like your co-workers you’ll enjoy going to work; if you don’t, you won’t. Partly that suggests that no career path is “safe” from bad co-workers; but it also suggests that it is worth your while learning how to make friends with people you don’t choose yourself. Take an interest in your fellow humans. Learn to smile instead of groan at their little quirks. You’d be amazed at how many friends there are hiding behind unpleasant façades.
Which would stress you more: having a boss upset because you didn’t do it right or having everyone turn to you to fix it when things break? Knowing how to improve a process and not being allowed to do so or having a problem no one knows how to solve placed in your lap? Knowing the company will fail unless you can do a year’s-worth of repetitive tasks in only six months or knowing the company will fail if you don’t have an incredible stroke of brilliance in the next thirty days?
Most jobs involve some amount of being the minion and some amount of being the mastermind, but often you can point out one of those two rôles as dominant. Both rôles can involve non-trivial stress, so it is worth asking yourself in advance which kind of stress you’d rather have. Ideally, of course, you’ll be able to “act well thy part” and befriend your co-workers and bosses enough that the stress will be minimal; but it is worth looking for a job that, if it happens to stress, will stress you in a way you can handle.
When I talk with people of faith about careers they often bring up some kind of concern like “I don’t know what God wants me to do.”
First off, let me say I sympathize with the idea that God might care what you do with your life. I have had the Lord interfere with my life plans multiple times, including telling me to change my major, to go to a particular school, and to begin a particular research project even when I had set determinations in other areas. God might care about your work life.
So, let us presuppose a benevolent God and that you have not yet discovered how to discover what said deity wants. Given that, let us approach the question logically.
Does God care what career you pick? Either the answer is “yes” or it is “no” or it conditional, such as “at some periods of my life, yes; at others, no.”
If the answer is “no, God doesn’t care what job you take” then you can move in whatever direction you wish with confidence.
If the answer is “yes, God does care what job you take”, then given the presupposition that God is benevolent we may assume that as long as you are willing to be led and don’t intentionally reject divine guidance God will keep at you until you end up where you ought to be. Ergo, don’t be stubborn. When one door closes and another opens, accept that and move on.
And if the answer is “sometimes God cares, but not always or in every particular” then we are back at the “yes” or “no” case in each particular moment or circumstance.
So, to the question “would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I ____” I reply “it’s God’s plan; let God worry about it.” If God decides to let you in on the plan, don’t interfere, but otherwise don’t fret about it.
At the end of my full-time missionary service I met with my mission president, a kind and admirable older gentleman who helped deal with the chaos that is a force of 200 mostly-unsupervised 20-year-olds preaching all day every day. Since this was the end of my full-time missionary service we talked about what I might do afterwards. At one point during that conversation he began to suggest a career to me, but stopped himself before he had gotten far enough for me to know what he was going to suggest. I asked him why he had stopped and he said something like “I was about to project my personality onto you. You’ll find your own path in life.” Of all the wise things my mission president said and did, that moment stands out as the one I recognized as uncommonly wise in the moment.
What should you do with your life? That’s up to the people who have some ownership of your life: God, who created it; you, to whom it has been entrusted; and your spouse (if you have one), with whom you have promised to share it. If the other two aren’t chiming in, pick something honest with stresses that you can handle and then do it well while befriending those with whom you work.